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House adds extra shuttle flight in NASA budget

The House on Wednesday approved a $20 billion NASA spending bill that calls for an extra Space Shuttle flight before the spacecraft program is shut down.
Image: AMS on space station
An artist's conception shows the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (indicated by the red arrow) mounted on the international space station.AMS / CERN
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House on Wednesday approved a $20 billion NASA spending bill that calls for an extra space shuttle flight before the spacecraft program is shut down.

The 2.8 percent increase in funds for the fiscal year starting in October was widely supported by both parties in the 409-15 vote. But the bill drew opposition from the Bush administration, which said the additional shuttle flight threatened NASA's ability to phase out the nearly three-decade-old program in 2010 and concentrate on the new equipment it needs to return humans to the moon. There are 10 more shuttle flights scheduled.

The purpose of the additional flight would be to deliver to the international space station the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer for experiments in seeking out unusual matter in space.

The $1.5 billion project, a collaborative effort of 16 countries sponsored by the Department of Energy, could offer unique insights into how the universe was formed. But after the Columbia tragedy in 2003, NASA said the shuttle would not be able to transport the 15,000-pound (6,800-kilogram) instrument to the space station because of technical and scheduling issues.

"We ought to make good on our original commitment to fly this expensive instrument to the ISS," Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, top Republican on the Science Committee, said in debate on the bill last week.

The bill also includes $1 billion to speed up development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares 1 launch vehicle that are slated to replace the shuttle. The money is aimed at closing the gap between 2010, when the shuttle flights end, and scheduled completion of the new transport system in 2015.

During that five-year period, the United States planned to rely on Russia, Europe and potential commercial vendors to ferry crew and equipment to the space station.

"Without additional funding for Orion, America risks abdicating its position as the world leader in science and technology to Russia, China and Japan," said Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, whose district includes Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The next-generation spacecraft is key to President Bush's goal of resuming manned flights to the moon by 2020 and then traveling on to Mars.

The administration, while stopping short of a veto threat, also objected to the spending level, saying the $17.6 billion outlined in Bush's fiscal 2009 budget was enough to meet NASA's goals.

The $20.2 billion bill authorizes $6 billion for space operations, almost $5 billion for science programs, $3.9 billion for exploration and $3.3 billion for cross-agency support programs. The bill still needs Senate consideration, and actual spending amounts are determined in annual appropriations bills.

With a new president in office next year, "it's important that Congress send a strong message on the best future course for our nation's space and aeronautics program" said House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

The House approved a Lampson-sponsored amendment that gives NASA the authority to modify a provision in an energy act passed last year that bars federal agencies from contracting for alternative or synthetic fuels that produce more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels.

The amendment would let NASA buy blends of fuels that are not predominantly comprised of fuels such as coal-to-liquid jet fuels with high carbon footprints.

The vote came four days after the shuttle Discovery returned from its latest mission to the international space station. That mission's commander, Mark Kelly, is married to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.